The Cayman Islands Human Rights Commission is currently a leaderless ship after lawyer James Austin-Smith stepped down from the chairman’s role.
Austin-Smith had criticised government’s decision to appeal a historic court judgment granting equal marriage rights to same-sex couples calling it “ill-considered” and a waste of public funds.
Speaker McKeeva Bush took objection to those remarks and called for Austin-Smith to be dismissed in a speech to the Legislative Assembly in April. Bush, whose comments drew support from other legislators, also criticised Austin-Smith for being an atheist.
Austin-Smith’s tenure as chairman expired on 31 May and has not been renewed. The governor, through the Commission’s Secretariat, is advertising for a replacement.
Though his departure is not being officially linked to the same-sex marriage dispute, Austin-Smith had agreed to multiple previous extensions to his chairmanship since his three-year term ran out in January 2018.
The Constitution requires the commission to have at least “two experienced lawyers” as members and Austin-Smith, a senior associate at Campbells, has filled one of those positions during his tenure.
The commission currently has only three members, including only one lawyer.
Austin-Smith told the Compass in an email, “I was supposed to finish at the end of December 2017 but extended several times over the course of the next 18 months as no replacement had been identified.
“My most recent extension was on April 1 for two months to the end of May. It was always envisaged that another person would be appointed and I would not extend further at that stage.”
Matthew Forbes, the head of the governor’s office, which has responsibility for identifying a successor, said the process was ongoing.
“The work of the commission doesn’t stop. The other members are taking on issues and discussing and dealing with them. There is a vacancy that needs to be filled and we hope to make an appointment soon.”
Despite those assurances, the commission’s current membership, does not meet the requirements of the Constitution which states, “The Commission shall consist of a Chairman and four other members appointed by the Governor, acting after consultation with the Premier and the Leader of the Opposition, at least two of whom shall be experienced lawyers.”
The three current members are Reverend Yvette Noble-Bloomfield, Joni Kirkconnell, a health and safety manager at CUC and Walker’s lawyer Dorothy Scott.
Deborah Bodden, manager of the Commissions Secretariat, said in an email to the Compass that the commission was “functional with three members”.
She said she was reviewing expressions of interest for the two vacant slots, including the chairman’s position, before presenting a shortlist to the Governor.
“The appointment of members to this, and every other Commission, is of the utmost importance and I am working diligently to ensure that the full complement is in place as quickly as possible,” she said.
“It is normal practice for membership of the Commissions to change over time, and during such transition the total number of members will vary. The Human Rights Commission remains quorate and the Commissions Secretariat continues to provide support and guidance to persons who wish to make contact with the Commission.”